The future of women’s rugby. The only way is up

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Last week in the Kingdom of Tonga, a Pacific nation made up of 169 islands, the Ministry of Education issued a ban on girls playing rugby in state schools in an attempt to ‘preserve the dignity of Tongan women and to hold on to Tongan cultural values.’

Unsurprisingly, this prompted outrage within Tonga and globally. The president of the Tonga Women’s Rugby Association, Fehoko Tu’ivai told TV New Zealand ‘How can we teach our girls to be independent when we keep making choices for them?’ New Zealand Prime Minister, and all round inspirational woman, Jacinda Ardern also expressed concern saying ‘I would encourage all the young women to engage in whatever sporting code they are interested in.’

The Education Ministry claimed that the ban was for protective measures due to the recent cyclone, rather than outdated patriarchal ideals. Either way the indictment was overturned over the weekend by the Tongan Prime Minister Akilisi Pohiva, who said it did not represent official government policy.

‘It is the government’s responsibility to provide opportunities for all the students to participate in all sports,’ the Prime Minister said.

Although overturned, the recent issue in Tonga highlights the plight of women’s rugby throughout the world.

There are many factors affecting women’s rugby, the main one arguably being exposure. In 2017 the women’s England team performed brilliantly in the Six Nations winning by a huge 9 points, it was only the second year that all of the women’s England matches were televised, with record viewing numbers. Incidentally, 2017 also saw more women take up the rugby in England than men for the first time. Coincidence?

At a grassroots level rugby is not readily available to girls in schools worldwide, often shunned in favour of more ‘ladylike’ sports like netball and hockey. However, in recent years rugby has started to take a more dominant place within the curriculum. A survey from 2015 found that 6 in 10 girls schools offered pupils the opportunity to play tag rugby, league or union.

This historic female exclusion from the sport has resulted in a huge modern shortage of female rugby players. The amount of women playing rugby is on the rise however, the void is globally vast.

According to female rugby site Scrum Queens, France is home to 5,722 female players compared to 98,580 men, Australia has 3,411 female players opposed to 67,052 men  and in England there are 8,105 female players opposed to 82,682 men. Interestingly Kazakhstan in Central Asia, has an almost equal ratio of women to men playing rugby, 370 to 416.

In an interview with sports blog PE Office the England women’s rugby captain Sarah Hunter  explains the barriers for young women in rugby; ‘There is still a stigma around getting hot and sweaty and that it’s unattractive. Obviously you can look a bit messy after training, but a lot of images on social media are about a perception of how girls should be: pretty, with perfect make-up and hair. People don’t necessarily think you can be like that and sporty at the same time.’

Tabloid headlines like ‘England women’s rugby captain Sarah Hunter flashes bum’ (The Daily Star) highlights the issues sports women still face in the public domain.

Due to a sheer lack of women playing rugby, the standard of play can be lower. The rise in popularity of the variant Rugby Sevens (not dissimilar to 5-a-side football) means that this fast-paced, less complicated format has taken some of the best players focus away from tournaments like the Six Nations or the World Cup.

With so few female players, the game struggles to compete with the men’s rugby league, who have their pick of the best players in the world.

Well funded rugby nations England and New Zealand are ranked far ahead of the rest of the world and are always favourites to win which takes some of the excitement of the unknown out of the game.   

Michelle Harvey of Westcombe Rugby club, says ‘From a fitness perspective, with obesity being on the rise, rugby is a great way of staying in shape. Rugby strengthens our minds as well as our bodies and gives us a good position to stave off mental issues like depression and anxiety. Rugby teaches more than just the game. The England RFU’s core values: Teamwork, Enjoyment, Discipline, Respect, Sportsmanship; these values can easily be translated into their work and social lives, and I am a firm believer that rugby is a sport that endorses the good in people.’

While the inspiring campaign funded by the National Lottery and developed by Sport England – This Girl Can supports all women ‘who are doing their thing no matter how well they do it, how they look or even how red their face gets.’ The campaign aims to help women overcome the fear of judgement and empower women to be involved in all sports, including rugby. Find your local rugby club here.

Let’s not be dictated to by archaic gender stereotypes. It’s 2018 ladies and this girl can.

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